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Are We Overprotecting Children so much that it’s Dangerous?

In December 2007, Gever Tully gave a Ted Talk titled “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do” followed up with a second in February of 2009 called “Life Lessons Through Tinkering.” His contention is we are overprotecting our children to the point where we are actually depriving them of learning the skills needed to navigate future danger.

As a way to counter the risks of overprotection, Gever Tully co-founded The Tinkering School, a weeklong camp where kids learn how to build, solve problems, and use new materials or old ones for new purposes. Kids come home from camp scraped and bruised, but they have learned how to use power tools to make things from scratch and see the world as a place where risks have to be thoughtfully managed rather than avoided at all costs.

To allow your kids to master some life lessons, Gever Tully wants all parents to have their school age kids do 5 dangerous things. They are:

Learn to play with fire   In addition to learning important science principles like oxygen intake and combustion, kids learn that something that can be dangerous is completely safe if they understand the do’s and don’t of fire safety.

Give them a pocket knife   Once kids learn a few basic rules like “always cut away with other hand or body part out of harm’s way, and never wave a pocket knife around,” a world of discovery opens up by poking, cutting, and carving all kinds of things with it.

Throw a spear   When kids repeatedly practice hitting a target with a long, initially very unwieldy spear, they learn about spatial orientation, gauging distance, and gaining mastery over an athletic activity. Tully cites research showing that throwing practice increases brain activity in the frontal and parietal lobes where visual acuity and 3D spatial relationships are developed. As target practice improves concentration, predictive ability and muscle memory, the brain develops. If children don’t use these parts of the brain, they will atrophy.

Take apart appliances   Trying to figure out how appliances work teaches kids how to tolerate frustration and find the fun that can come from patient trial and error learning. Most importantly, kids gain tremendous confidence by learning that seemingly unknowable “black boxes” can be understood with focus, perseverance, and determination.

Drive a car   All kids know from a very early age that cars are so large and powerful that they can kill people. When a school-age child sits in a parent’s lap in any empty parking lot and learns how to steer, they learn that, with proper instruction, even a very dangerous machine can be controlled.

I believe that Gever Tully makes a refreshing and compelling case for the long-term danger that comes from overprotecting children. At The Tinkering School, kids revel in free form, unstructured time where they learn that nothing goes smoothly but a great many things can eventually be figured out. What I particularly admire about The Tinkering School’s philosophy is that failures are celebrated and analyzed as much as successes. One beautiful example of this cultivation of the creative spirit there is the artistic talent that comes out via The Tinkering School tradition of decorating failed projects!

Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals LLC

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